By Paul Goodman
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"We will never know how many people entered the country who should have been prevented from doing so."
Conservatives want to reduce the deficit. We also want to control our borders. The scandal over the Border Agency and reduced checks is a demonstration of what can happen when those two instincts grind against each other – and a reminder that parts of the Home Office empire are still not fit for purpose. Essentially, senior Border Agency officials asked Ministers to pilot a scheme that would trade off reduced checks for some EEA nationals against enhanced checks on others. Permission to do so was given, and officials then apparently went beyond their brief by extending the experiment to non-EEA nationals. Theresa May told the Commons yesterday that: "As a result of these unauthorised actions, we will never know how many people entered the country who should have been prevented from doing so".
Labour are suggesting that the Home Secretary either knew what officials were up to, in which case she is implicated, or didn't know, in which case she is incompetent. This would carry more credibility if some of the very same checks had not been suspended on their watch – "on more than 100 occasions", as May pointed out. But what of Labour's charge? The Home Secretary fiercely denies complicity. This returns attention to competence. Brodie Clark, the Head of the UK Border Force, has been suspended by the Border Agency of which it is a part, along with two of other officials. It can of course be argued that since Ministers are responsible for their Departments, they should shoulder the blame – and the consequences.
Who was monitoring the scheme? (And were some checks relaxed by officials before it was introduced?)
Clark's side of the story hasn't yet been told. But to assert that Ministers must quit if civil servants err is to write the latter a blank cheque, which is wrong. Most officials work dutifully if not always imaginatively for the government of the day, but a few seem always intent on proving that "Yes, Minister" was a fly-on-the-wall documentary: for example, David Cameron's Munich speech on extremism was in part a response to resistance to Government policy on the matter in the Home Secretary's own department. However, there is a double dimension to the competence question. Clark and others may have gone rogue, but that doesn't mean that the policy was right. The bottom line is that EEA children weren't always checked against the warnings index and EEA adults didn't always have their biometric chips checked – measures that May did approve.
Ministers say that the pilot may have squared the policy circle – claiming that the detection of illegal immigrants rose by 10 per cent during the pilot, thereby marrying bigger savings to better results. But these haven't yet been fully evaluated. And the scheme is unlikely to have seen the light of day were the Department not scrambling to save money. The Home Secretary's statement makes it clear that she was fully in charge – taking responsibility for the launch of the pilot after a gestation of over six months. Is it really impossible for Border Force to improve their performance without waiving usual checks against the warnings index and biometric chips? And if it was right to try out the pilot, was it also right to extend it (as May did in September)? Who was monitoring what Border Force was up to during the scheme's three months?
Migration Watch's petition should now be debated in the Commons
It isn't hard to see what will happen next. The media relishes hunting a Minister; the right-wing press distrusts Downing Street. The Daily Telegraph's front page this morning mocks the Home Secretary with the headline: "I'm sorry, I haven't a clue", and its editorial says pointedly that "we need to see the instructions given to Mr Clark by ministers before we can tell who is responsible". The Sun takes a similar view; the Times front page's take is that May deliberately weakened border control. The hunt is on for a "smoking gun" memo. The Home Affairs Select Committee will question May today, and its inquiry can be added to the three others that she announced yesterday (which seems like rather a lot of them). Her position will certainly be exposed if a terrorist, say, turns out to have entered Britain as an EEA passenger and wasn't checked as usual.
There's little need to ask what voters think of the matter. A few hours after the Home Secretary's statement in the Commons, it was announced that Migration Watch's petition urging the Government to reduce immigration and stablise our population had hit 100,000 signatories. Non-EU immigration is over two-thirds of the total, and May is yet to spell out what action she will take on family visas (an announcement was promised "soon" at October's party conference). However, migration from EU countries and the debate about repatriating powers are closely linked: border control came top of 18 arguments this site tested against the EU as it currently works. This is why it should top the list of any power repatriation plan drawn up by Conservative MPs and pressed on Downing Street.